Enter the Dragon at the Pickwick Theatre

WHAT: Enter the Dragon (1973) presented in DCP
WHEN: November 17, 2016   2PM  &  7:30PM
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
HOW MUCH: $10 ($8 advance)/$6 for 2 PM matinee

“What’s your style?”
“My style? You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.”
~Lee to Parsons in Enter the Dragon

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A Shaolin martial artist (Bruce Lee) is enlisted by the British government to infiltrate the island of Han. It is controlled by a crime boss who uses a fighting tournament to recruit new men into his operation.

Enter the Dragon is considered one of the greatest examples of the martial arts film. The “Kung Fu” movie was a genre that came into its own in the early 1970s, succeeding the “spaghetti Western” in international popularity. The star who most elevated the genre was the legendary Bruce Lee, who had already starred in several successful films in Hong Kong. His popularity skyrocketed as a result. Lee became a cultural icon and the face of martial arts. He was not only a great athlete, but he could act as well. Bruce Lee displayed a charisma and a distinctive screen presence. In his article for Cinema Retro, author Mike Siegel writes, “Together with his director, Lee ultimately found the perfect screen appearance for his first international film, satisfying the western taste established by the heroes of the 1960s and 1970s: the more skilled the hero, the cooler he had to behave on screen. This was a direct result of the James Bond films and the Italian western phenomenon as well as the magnetic screen presence of the biggest action stars of the time, McQueen, Eastwood and Bronson” (Vol. 12: Issue 35, 2016).

Enter the Dragon is one of the more modern classics we have presented at the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. In fact, it is our first film from the 1970s. The reason I’ve included it in Season 4 is simply because I grew up watching the films of Bruce Lee on television, which included The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon. (The latter featured Lee’s climactic fight with Chuck Norris in the Roman Colosseum.) I also remember the lesser efforts of the genre by Lee’s imitators– the “Bruceploitation” period that followed in the wake of Lee’s death.

The philosophy of Lee– the “emotional content”– separates Enter the Dragon from other Kung Fu movies.
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Warner Brothers, the studio that was co-producing the venture with Hong Kong, was somewhat skeptical of making an Asian the whole show. As a result, they teamed Lee up with John Saxon and Jim Kelly. However, there was no mistaking who the star was. Though Bruce Lee carries the film, he is given able support from the other two. John Saxon was never a screen fighter, but he was a black belt in real life and is convincing in the role of Roper. Jim Kelly, as Williams, was cast at the last minute because of his martial arts background, but he holds his own as an actor. He would go on to star in many films in the “Blaxploitation” cycle of the 1970s. The interesting aspect about their onscreen dynamic is that the film shows the three heroes fighting together with no commentary about their race, as you would probably find in a film today.

In the roles of Han’s fighters were actors who were martial arts experts, such as karate champion Robert Wall. Lee choreographed the fight scenes himself, but despite his precision and perfectionism, one accident did occur. In the fight in which Wall breaks a glass bottle in anger and thrusts it at Lee, he did get his hand cut in the exchange. Another standout performance is Angela Mau, who played Lee’s sister. She is seen in a flashback in which she is attacked by several of Han’s men. It is perhaps the best scene in the movie not involving Bruce Lee. Mau was a Taiwanese actress who appeared in many martial arts films of the 1970s. She was aptly nicknamed “Lady Kung Fu.” Also of note, one of Han’s henchmen is played by Jackie Chan in a fleeting, uncredited part.

John Saxon and Jim Kelly. There’s no mistaking the decade!
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Visually, the film is reminiscent of a James Bond adventure, albeit on a smaller scale. Bond was a conscious influence on aspects of the film’s plot as well, including the handicapped villain, his white cat, and the underground lair. It’s a very colorful film, and in the audio commentary on the dvd, producer Paul Heller mentions the pictorial influence of Terry and the Pirates, a 1930s comic strip that was set in the Orient. Enter the Dragon evokes the atmosphere of Hong Kong with its sets and location work, especially the harbor where the protagonists travel on their way to Han’s island; it is a floating ghetto of Chinese junks.

Although the film features a great cast, wonderful sets and location work, as well as a terrific film score by Lalo Schifrin, it is first and foremost a great martial arts film remembered mainly for its action sequences. Bruce Lee wielding a set of nunchucks is one of those audience-applauding moments that play beautifully in a packed theatre. The most famous scene, however, is Bruce Lee’s confrontation with Han within the confines of a mirrored room. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema and one of the highlights of the film.

Unlike modern martial arts films, which often depict acrobatics that defy the laws of physics (and gravity), Enter the Dragon displays a true artistry of the genre because it is rooted in the skills and athleticism of its star, Bruce Lee. There were no special effects needed when he was onscreen. Sadly, Enter the Dragon would be Lee’s last film. He died at the age of 32 just before the film’s release. Game of Death, the film Lee had started before working on Enter the Dragon, was later completed in 1978 using stand-ins. (Only fifteen minutes of Bruce Lee was actually incorporated into that film.)

In 2004, Enter the Dragon was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


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